Palm Sunday (A)
April 2, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel from Saint Matthew.
I love Clint Eastwood westerns. The Unforgiven is great, but even better are the spaghetti westerns: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a true classic with betrayal, greed, double-crosses, bad guys, a good guy of sorts, and a happy ending of sorts. The good buy isn’t a very good guy, but he shows a little mercy at the end. To compare the passion of Christ to a spaghetti western is probably inappropriate, and that’s certainly not my point. Rather, it’s in the Passion of Jesus, that we truly do see the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
In the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood plays the “good guy”, but there isn’t a clear distinction between the three main characters. Eastwood is the Good, and at the end he spares the Bad, but he’s also a double-crosser and a killer. It can be said that he’s both good and bad, which means that he’s exactly like you and me. We can be good and we can be bad, which is a consequence of a sinful creature.
Jesus is the ultimate and only perfect good. From the moment of His conception, He was perfectly sinless. Not once in His life did He sin or fall for temptation. He was never a whiny child or a rebellious teen. He never drank too much or fought with His friends. He never hated nor did He teach His followers to hate. Jesus, as True Man born of the Virgin Mary had to be sinless. It was only by being sinless that He could fulfill His purpose for becoming man. He had to be sinless to be where we find Him in the Gospel. today.
When Pilate examined Jesus, he was astounded that Jesus didn’t raise any defense. He didn’t vehemently refute the accusations. He didn’t protest His innocence. He simply let the course of events proceed to the cross. Jesus was perfectly justified to defend Himself both verbally and physically but to do so would’ve been unfaithful to His Father. This was the story throughout His Passion.
While Jesus could’ve stopped Judas, He didn’t. Instead of arguing with His Father, He submitted to His Father with those powerful words: “Nevertheless not as I will but as your will.” When Peter attempted to defend Jesus with his sword, Jesus not only ordered Peter to stop, He healed the man Peter injured. While He could’ve called on 72,000 angels to save Him, Jesus resisted just as He did when He faced Satan in the wilderness.
When He was hauled before the High Priest, the Council, Pilate, and Herod, He spoke the truth even though it led directly to His death. He refused to fight the false accusations to fulfill Isaiah’s words: “Like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” And when He was physically assaulted, mocked, and spat upon, He turned the other cheek. As Saint Peter writes, “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). He had all the power in the world, and yet refused to use it to save Himself.
He refused the gall which would’ve lessened His pain so He would feel the full brunt of God’s wrath against our Sin. And as He hung naked on the cross, He ignored the temptation to come down off the cross. He could’ve hopped down and obliterated His enemies and comforted His disciples, but that wouldn’t have saved anyone. Instead, when He had withstood all that, He was then forced to endure the agony of being forsaken by His Father, before finally dying and ending the separation between God and man. Saint Paul writes in the Epistle: “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
This is what Christ’s Passion was all about: ending the separation caused by sin. Isaiah says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear” (Is 59:2). If this separation remained, you’d be condemned to damnation. You’d be as lost as The Bad in our Lord’s Passion. Look at the sins of our Lord’s suffering: bribery, conspiracy, false testimony, bogus charges, a sham trial, assault, envy, Pilate scourging Jesus even though he knew Jesus was innocent, Pilate abdicating his responsibility to avoid any problems with Caesar and finally the execution of an innocent man. Sinners and their sins right there for everyone to see.
The Bad in the Passion of the Good includes those who overall seem to be good, as even disciples are separated from God by their sins. Notice, I didn’t say the disciples, I said disciples – you and me. Judas, driven by greed and other unknown motivations, betrayed His Lord for a paltry thirty pieces of silver. When you betray Jesus, what’s your motivation? What leads you to trade Jesus for some paltry thing you desire? Is money more important than your Savior?
Matthew isn’t afraid to talk about his sin because like the others he told Jesus, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” But you know what happened! They couldn’t even stay awake to pray for Jesus! Then, afraid of being arrested, they ran like frightened rabbits. Pride was called on the deadly sins, and it’s easy to see why. Pride leads us to sin when we think we won’t get caught or if we commit a sin we’re still different than others. Pride leads us to point out the sins of others while refusing to look in a mirror. Pride, like it did in Pilate, blames others or passes the buck, as it refuses to take responsibility for our sins.
Peter was once chastised for thinking about the things of man instead of the things of God, and in the Garden of Gethsemane Peter wields his sword as his mind is fixated on the things of man. We never do that right? Okay, the sword thing probably hasn’t happened, but you know you’ve desired material things over the spiritual things of Jesus. You know you’ve heard the commands of God and chosen to disobey them.
Peter bragged, “Though they [pointing at the other disciples] all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” What happens a few hours later? He denies knowing Jesus to save his own hide. He refuses to speak the truth because it might get him into trouble. He even protests, “God damn me if I’m lying!” I want you to contemplate how you deny Jesus. Jesus says, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:33) but we still do! We deny Him with our thoughts, words, and deeds. We deny Him by the way we act around certain friends, at work, or outside the church doors. We deny Him by refusing to speak the truth for fear of offending someone or being accused of being an unloving bigot. We are sinners and you cannot escape that fact no matter what you think or do.
Enter almost any church in America and you’ll find beautiful gold crosses on the altars, walls, pictures. Even the crucifixes, like the one I’m wearing, which depicts the dead Jesus, are usually attractive. Artistic crosses are all that we’re accustomed to. But did you know that it wasn’t until several hundred years after Jesus that Christians began wearing crosses and making them beautiful? The early Christians didn’t do that because the cross was truly ugly. The cross of Jesus was rough wood, stained with the blood of those who had previously carried it, and drenched with His blood and tissue. A cross was an object of derision as those who hung on it were the dregs of society. The death of the condemned was likewise ugly – shock, hypothermia, blood loss, suffocation, the breaking of legs, the plunging spear into the side of the lifeless Savior. Not depictions we would welcome on our altar.
If Jesus is the Good and we’re the Bad, where’s the Ugly? The Ugly is the Cross. It’s hard to believe beauty can come out of something so ugly, but when God’s at work, that’s what happens. The cross is ugly. The beauty is found in Jesus, who died on that ugly cross for you.
Out of the ugliness comes the beauty of the cup of God’s wrath consumed for you, that cup that Jesus begged His Father to not have Him drink. Out of the ugliness of sin crucified with Jesus, comes the beauty of forgiveness. Out of the ugliness of abandonment by God, comes the promise that God will never abandon you. Out of the ugliness of betrayal comes Christ’s faithfulness to you. Out of the ugliness of denial, comes Christ’s promise to not deny those who call on His name. Out of the ugliness comes new birth for you and for me. Out of the ugliness of a man crucified nude, comes the beautiful robes of righteousness that will be ours for eternity. Out of the ugliness of the blood of the crucified, comes the joy of being washed in the blood of Jesus. Out of the ugliness of hate comes the beauty of life and forgiveness for you.
The Passion of Jesus has all the hallmarks of a great movie, and many great movie have been made. But we are comforted by the fact that it’s not a movie, it’s real life. And no matter how good a movie it is, a movie can’t begin to encompass what really happened to our Lord as He endured the wrath of God against the ugliness of the sin in us and those around us. It’s the truth of God’s love for you that He would endure it all for you. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly had a hazy ending because it was both kind of good and kind of bad. The Passion of our Lord and Savior doesn’t have a hazy ending, not at all, because it doesn’t end with the crucifixion, it ends with the magnificent resurrection which irreversibly dispels the bad and the ugly from you.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen